Berlioz: Les nuits d’été; La mort d’Ophélie

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Les nuits d’été; La mort d’Ophélie
PERFORMER: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Cord Garben (piano); Chorus of the Royal Opera, Stockholm, Berlin PO/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: 445 823-2 DDD
Berlioz composed his song-cycle Les nuits d’été for mezzo-soprano; so it is curious that Anne Sofie von Otter should transpose four songs down, retaining the keys intended for contralto. She is at her best in ‘Le spectre de la rose’, although her marvellous capacity to spin lines while fully articulating the words and their meaning is apparent everywhere. Was the semitone transposition of ‘L’île inconnue’ really necessary? ‘Villanelle’, ‘Absence’, and ‘Au cimetière’ lie a third lower (as with Janet Baker), marring Berlioz’s expertly conceived orchestrations and making the Berlin Philharmonic plusher than ever. Levine is a sensitive Berliozian, but the sound is more dense than intense, the voice embedded in the texture: some might prefer it in higher relief.

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Five mélodies with piano are repeated from the recent multi-voiced DG Berlioz collection which I have already reviewed (see July 1994). Further hearing reminds me to praise Cord Garben’s idiomatic playing, particularly the birds in ‘Le matin’ and the storm in ‘La belle Isabeau’. The other songs are ‘La mort d’Ophélie’, ‘La captive’ and ‘La belle voyageuse’; a pity not to use Berlioz’s orchestrations of the latter pair. A small orchestra and chorus reappear for ‘Strophes’ from Roméo et Juliette, exquisitely placed.

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An odd collection, therefore, but infinitely worth it for the singing. Julian Rushton